In a recent opinion piece in Plastics News ("Plastics industry executive wrong on several points," Nov. 19, Page 6), representatives from As You Sow and Walden Asset Management proved that they are more interested in headline-grabbing, feel-good actions than improving packaging sustainability. If they wanted to be a productive player in this discussion, they would acknowledge that plastic grocery bags make up a tiny fraction of waste and litter. They would also acknowledge that when considering the lifecycle of packaging products, plastic grocery bags are the most environmentally friendly option. However, to try to put some quick wins on the board, the groups disregard this evidence.
Regarding packaging regulations, it is no secret we believe that they should be considered at the state level. This is not inconsistent from the position activists took when banning plastic bags statewide in California. We don't support bans and taxes on packaging due to the negative environmental and economic consequences, but if someone wants to have that debate, it should be done at the state level. Imagine being a regional chain grocery store that has to stock entirely different bags and maintain entirely different records of bag distribution and bag fees at each of its locations. Or being a manufacturer needing to develop city-specific product lines in order to keep up with each local ordinance. This all increases production costs, making groceries more expensive. A patchwork of local ordinances is harmful for everyone.
Policies aimed at litter and waste reduction need to take a larger view of what's driving the problem, and the environmental lifecycle impact of every packaging option. Plastic grocery bags make up a fraction of waste and litter to begin with, typically less than 1-2 percent of either category. We agree that if you ban or tax a plastic bag, plastic bags will become an even smaller portion of waste and litter. However, you need to consider the impact of the replacement.
After Austin banned bags, a city-funded study found that the volume of plastic waste increased because thicker reusable bags were discarded in their place. In Thurston County, Wash., a plastic bag ban led to the usage of more carbon-intensive paper bags. Even the California cleanup study cited in the previous opinion piece showed that plastic grocery bags, as a specific share of coastal litter, fell just 0.2 percent from 2016 to 2017 — from 1.7 percent of overall coastal litter to 1.5 percent. Some haphazard reviews of this data claim a higher percentage drop but miss the fact the numbers they cited compared the number of all plastic bags (grocery bags, trash bags, Ziploc bags, etc.) in previous years to plastic grocery bags only in 2017. These mischaracterizations make it more difficult to work together on long-lasting environmental progress.
Also, lifecycle analyses are nothing to dismiss. Recent work by the governments of Quebec and Denmark make clear that plastic grocery bags have the least environmental impact when compared to others, such as paper and canvas. For example, the Quebec study found that a cotton bag would require "between 100 and 2,954 uses for its environmental impact to be equivalent to the environmental impacts of the conventional plastic bag."
Thanks to our members' investments, there is a nationwide network of in-store recycling drop-off points to make it easy for shoppers to return their plastic grocery bags and have them recycled into a variety of new products. This infrastructure has also made it easier to recycle other film such as dry cleaning bags. And while the rate of plastic grocery bag recycling has grown dramatically over the past 15 years, we recognize there's a bit of a limitation on how big recycling can get. The number one end-use for plastic grocery bags, by far, is when they're reused as trashcan liners at a rate of 77.7 percent. This is a good thing. As the Quebec lifecycle study reports, plastic bags already have a smaller environmental impact, and when they're reused the measure gets even better as it "avoids the production and purchase of garbage/bin liner bags."
As You Sow donors and Walden Asset Management investors would achieve far greater environmental impact if their resources weren't being used to attack an American-made, sustainable product that makes up a tiny fraction of waste and litter.